By Cathal Kelly
The Toronto Star
August 23, 2011
The only question being asked about Sidney Crosby’s return from a serious brain injury is “When?”
The more pressing question is “Why?”
Why would Crosby risk an invalid’s life in order to return to a game he has already conquered?
His trophy case is full. He has a championship ring and an Olympic gold medal. He’s been league MVP, leading scorer and the consensus best player in the game. He’s only 24 and his hall-of-fame bonafides are beyond questioning. His material needs are settled for a dozen lifetimes.
It’s been nearly eight months of abortive attempts to return. CTV Halifax reported Monday that his latest comeback has been put on hold because of a recurrence of symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. If true — his agent, Pat Brisson, says it isn’t — it’s nearly certain that he will miss the start of the season in six weeks time.
Whenever Crosby returns and for however long, the rest of his career will be an extended breath-holding exercise. Every fan will be waiting for the next time Crosby is laid out and wondering, “Is this the one?”
We still don’t know how badly Crosby is hurt. He can’t fully know either. The mind is a tricky thing. It works perfectly right up until you abuse it just enough that it starts working imperfectly.
Every dead athlete whose brain is now being cut apart and shown to be riddled with trauma spent every day of his professional playing career within rock-throwing distance of a team doctor. They died anyway. Doctors can’t protect you from flying elbows. All the rule changes in the world can’t either.
We do know that brain injury is cumulative and exponential. Hurt it once, and the threshold for hurting it again drops. Damage in the first instance is far worse in the second.
Nevertheless, we continue to conflate brain injury with every other sort of injury. The crucial difference is that you can live with a limp. Your mind, however, is not designed to significantly deteriorate in your youth. When it does so, it usually signals the imminence of death.
The Star’s Randy Starkman has detailed the sad end of Dave Scatchard’s itinerant NHL career after repeated concussions. At age 35, his health is already in chilling decline. Add him to the growing list of men physically annihilated by this particular branch of the entertainment business.
Doctors forced Scatchard out in order to save his life. He went unwillingly. No one pressed Scatchard to continue pushing through his own moving target of exactly how badly he could injure himself and still put on pads.
By comparison, Crosby’s fate is debated in mythic terms. He is the man professional hockey cannot afford to lose. Hockey without him will be boring for Americans. He’s been on HBO, for God’s sake. No one else in today’s NHL is big enough for U.S. pay cable. That seems to be the sum of the argument, at least.
We take it as a given that as long as he is able to plant his skates on the ice, form a semi-coherent sentence and pass the legally defensible definition of “fit,” Crosby should not only put his health at risk, but he should want to do that.
Doubtless, he does. Though Scatchard and Crosby are at opposite ends of the elite spectrum, they share the same code: play through it. We can understand why. Hockey has rewarded previous relentlessness. It’s the only life they’ve known. In Crosby’s case, he is better at it than anyone else in the world.
If I was one of the people who knew and loved Sidney Crosby, those would not be good enough reasons.
There are no goals left for him in the game. At best, all he achieves from now on is more of the same. He still has an entire life to lead after hockey, whether it ends tomorrow or in a decade. What’s in the balance is how capable he will be of leading it fully.
Ending a career this glorious so soon would be a kind of tragedy, if we can risk using that word.
It would be a huge blow to the player, and a transient one for his admirers. There will always be another hockey hero. That’s a constant. Hockey may think it needs Sidney Crosby, but it surely doesn’t need him crippled.
Will he return? Probably.
Should he? Ask Dave Scatchard in a few years time.